Blueprint For a Drawdown

Nov. 1, 2011

Defense cuts are coming. As part of the federal debt reduction plan approved in August, the Pentagon budget will shrink by approximately $400 billion over the next 10 years. But by the end of this year, all US combat troops should be out of Iraq, and a similar end to the mission in Afghanistan is expected in 2014. For a decade, military planning focused on counterinsurgency missions requiring large numbers of ground troops.

The nation has an opportunity to reprioritize the defense budget to focus on the missions and regions most likely to threaten US security in the future.

A new report from the Center for a New American Security, “Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity,” lays out a compelling argument for where the Pentagon needs to shift its attention over the next decade.

The “hard choices” the report refers to reflect the fact that the US military cannot do everything or be everywhere it would like to be.

“The debate about budget cuts has downplayed both military strategy and the potential consequences for US national security,” the report notes. “We acknowledge that these [budget] constraints are driving strategy, not the other way around, but accept this as an unavoidable reality.”

To stimulate thinking, CNAS laid out roadmaps to meet four different defense budget targets. The first, and easiest, is a way to meet a 10-year cut of roughly $400 billion—essentially the budget reduction DOD has already committed to. Next are two interim scenarios, and at the far extreme is an almost-worst-case, under which roughly $850 billion would be slashed from the Pentagon budget.

To protect some critical regions and improve capabilities needed for the future, some missions must decline and some forces must be cut. There will be winners and losers.

CNAS’ scenarios all prioritize the same things. Bottom line: The US should focus on the Pacific, Indian Ocean, and the Middle Eastern regions, even though this means Latin America and Africa will be de-emphasized.

A controversial but realistic recommendation is that, in an era of declining budgets, “the US military should consider Europe a tertiary priority as NATO’s and its member states’ military capabilities decline.” In other words, the US should no longer subsidize Europe’s defense when the continent’s own nations are capable of doing much more.

Manpower and equipment spending also need adjustment. The Marine Corps, “the smallest US service, today boasts more tanks, artillery, fixed wing aircraft, and uniformed personnel than the entire British military,” CNAS notes.

DOD should prioritize naval and air forces, at the expense of land forces. This will require political bravery, because serious adjustments would end the long-standing gentleman’s agreement by which the Army, Navy, and Air Force each receive roughly equal shares of defense spending. This will not meet future needs.

Once the US is out of Iraq and Afghanistan, “large active duty ground forces will be needed less,” the report argues, and much of the Army’s heavy combat capability can safely transition to the reserves. Under the easiest plan, the Army and Marine Corps would return to their 2001 force sizes; land force end-strength reductions would be much larger as the cuts increased. In the event of a major war, however, land forces can be rebuilt much more quickly and inexpensively than the Navy or Air Force, which rely upon high technology and active production lines.

The four scenarios share many common traits. Regardless of whether DOD has to shed $350 billion or $850 billion, CNAS argues the Army and Marine Corps should shrink (manpower is expensive and its importance is declining); investment in “breakthrough” stealthy, long-range unmanned aircraft should be increased (these systems are needed over the Pacific); the F-35 buy should be reduced (its range is too short); 15 C-5As should be retired (the US already has too much airlift capacity); and a variety of ground force programs should all be canceled or significantly delayed (they are expensive and the money is better spent elsewhere).

There will be opposition to each of these suggestions, and the F-35 cut is particularly worrisome to airpower advocates, partly because stealthy fighters will be a necessity against advanced air defenses. But less money will be available in the future, so something must give. Generic cuts hitting the military services and geographic regions equally will not serve national security.

CNAS was founded by current Pentagon policy chief Michele Flournoy, and the report itself was co-authored by retired Army Lt. Gen. David W. Barno. Almost immediately, top DOD officials picked up some of its themes.

“If we decide that we’ve got to maintain our force structure presence in the Pacific in order to deal with China … and if we decide that the Middle East is also a very important area where we have to maintain a presence,” then “just by virtue of the numbers that we’re dealing with,” the US will probably have to reduce its focus on Latin America and Africa, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta testified Oct. 13.

“Korea remains a real threat,” Panetta added. “I think we’ve got to maintain that presence there [but] we’ve got … base structure in Europe that is pretty broad. … Do we need to maintain all of that?” he asked.

At the same hearing, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the new JCS Chairman, said prioritization is “not a matter of ignoring anything.” The military will never say “we’re going to be really good in the Pacific, but we’re going to completely ignore the Indian Ocean and its littorals,” Dempsey said.

The Pacific region and Middle East require large amounts of airlift, aerial refueling capability, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance, and long-range strike for power projection.

Robert M. Gates, Panetta’s predecessor, once chided the services for fixating on possible future wars. With today’s manpower-intensive counterinsurgency battles winding down, it is time for DOD to plot a new way forward—focusing on likely threats and realistic assessments.

If the planning is done correctly, airpower will emerge as a priority, even in a smaller military.